Friday, February 06, 2015

Tanzania's Lumber Thieves

Forests play a critical role in the fight against global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can hold down global temperature increases. Tanzania has 33 million hectares of forests and woodland, but the country has been losing more than 400,000 hectares of forest a year for two decades. 96 percent of trees cut in Tanzania are illegally harvested. An offender who is caught with a consignment of logs worth Tsh. 100 million ($59,000) would be fined Tsh. 500,000 ($294). "These low fines do not always deter illegal activities since the offenders can always afford them," said Athumani Lunduli, a forest conservation official at Chumbi village in Rufiji. 

Illegal logging is devastating native forests in coastal Tanzania's Rufiji district. Hundreds of tonnes of trees are being smuggled out of the district each month by timber traders to feed a lucrative construction market and furniture industries within the country and abroad, said district forest officials. Illegal harvesting of logs in the district threatens the survival of natural forests.

Loggers, who often invade forests at night, are targeting indigenous tree species, notably mninga, and mpodo, which are now on the verge of local extinction due to high demand for their wood.

"The loggers seem to be very well organized and armed. Unfortunately our local forest guards do not have the capacity to confront them," said Shamte Mahawa Mangwi, village executive officer in Rufiji.

An assessment conducted by the Journalists Environmental Association of Tanzania (JET) in November said that illegal logging in the Rufiji forests is fueled by a growing demand for wood products and charcoal making. According to the residents, logs are ferried through unofficial routes assisted by a network of local police officers, who often pretend to be inspecting vehicles for smuggled timber when they are in fact helping them to flee.

"I don't have any trust with the police force. They sometimes arrest suspected criminals and release them without charge," Justin Mfinanga, of Ikwiriri village explained. 

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